From Marcus Smith to Italy U20, Paul Williams reflects on rugby’s recent goings-on


Praise Marcus Smith for the basics

Marcus Smith was Player of the Match against Wales, even though it arguably should have gone to Maro Itoje, who made more ground than the Mid-Atlantic Ridge.

Itoje made 30m, at lock, where you’re never more than two inches away from someone who deadlifts the bodyweight of your entire family. But whilst Smith possibly shouldn’t have got the prize, he should have got the plaudits for doing something that he rarely needs to – the basics.

Smith’s goalkicking at Twickenham was fantastic and would have ticked the wish-list of any Test coach. His passing was simple and direct when required and, despite having a ‘quiet game’, he still beat two defenders – many modern tens don’t beat two defenders in a month.

Smith’s ‘extras’ are exquisite to the point that they can be blinding, but they shouldn’t hide just how solid his basics are. He was responsible for 18 of England’s 23 points in that Six Nations match whilst remaining a triple threat (kick/pass/run) at all times.

The Sharks are swarming

Contrary to evolutionary theory, the Sharks have evolved significantly in less than 12 months. Going into this season they had already recruited a competitive squad, something that has now become evident in the latter stages of the United Rugby Championship. The impact of the returning Boks has been devastating for the opposition, but a joy for the neutral.

Now they can add Eben Etzebeth to the list. Let’s face it, Etzebeth is box office in that he’s the size of both a massive box and an office. He’s arguably the best lock in the world and still only 30 years of age. His return to South Africa next season is huge – and his chosen destination within the country even more so.

If you think Etzebeth has come home on a retirement plan, you’re wrong. Within 24 hours of the announcement, he was looking for a social media rumble with Bakkies Botha – you can count the amount of people prepared to do that on one hand.

The Sharks have set their sights on dominating northern hemisphere rugby and those don’t appear to be hollow words. Far from it. The next 18 months are going to be massive for the Sharks in South Africa and Europe.

Super Rugby starts and so do the lazy comments

If there is one truly lazy social media comment it’s that Super Rugby defences are weak. We can’t ignore that Super Rugby is an attack-focused league, where attacking principles are key. You need only look at the way that New Zealand and Australia have historically played to see that. But it’s always worth remembering that there’s a difference between a missed tackle and a player who is genuinely beaten.

Will Jordan’s try against the Highlanders is a prime example. Yes, he beat more men than a mob boss, but most of those players were genuinely beaten as opposed to lacking defensively.

Super Rugby after round two is no different to any other of the previous seasons (apart from the awesome inclusion of Pacific sides Fijian Drua and Moana Pasifika). There are very few repeated one-up carries; forwards often look for the offload before a pointless contact; in midfield line breaks aren’t a rarity but a given.

During the Blues v Hurricanes game there were nearly 60 defenders beaten. Do we assume that there are Kiwi players who have been awarded professional contracts, in the best rugby nation on earth, who can’t tackle? Or that the attacking play is of a level where defence is more difficult? The answer is obvious.

To call defences in Super Rugby lazy is the laziest comment of them all.

When ‘eights’ go full eight

Like the spiral bomb and creative tens, No 8s are undergoing a bit of a revival in rugby. It seems like only a matter of months ago that hybrid back-row players were the all the rage and it was widely accepted that sixes, sevens and eights can simply interchange, with some coaches contemplating playing wings in that role.

But when you see the impact of young eights like Gavin Coombes of Munster, Evan Roos of the Stormers and Morgan Morris of the Ospreys (plus vets like Sione Kalamafoni at the Scarlets), the impact of a legit carrying eight is undeniable.

February saw the finest example of the season. Worcester No 8 Sione Vailanu scored a try that was ‘number-eightism’ distilled into its purest form.

Arriving a ruck, mid-chaos, he simply forgot what ruck protocols were. Faced with an undefended ball, he picked it up, deleted all knowledge of pod systems/back-line players from his mind and went full Godzilla.

The first defender was blown away by his explosive pace and the last defender was bounced like a cheap inflatable toy. All of which was done with the ball in one hand, something that only a true eight will risk.

Referees are super-human

February saw an unusual incident in the Gallagher Premiership – a referee was injured and had to be replaced. Tom Foley tweaked something mid-game and was replaced by Matthew Carley.

Whilst the incident isn’t unique, it does make you appreciate how few referees get injured. The average ref runs about 7km per game and 1.5km of that at 80% of their max output. They may not be taking the same collisions as the players, but you’d imagine that just covering that amount of ground would create a series of refereeing injuries over a season, but it rarely does.

When was the last time you ever heard of a referee being out for six months with an injury? Even if we take the fitness debate outside of rugby and reframe a referee’s efforts as ‘exercise’, the lack of injuries is still remarkable. On occasions the author of this article can injure himself by merely sleeping on the wrong shoulder.

Referees rarely get the praise they deserve for their skills, the least we can do is appreciate their fitness.

Italy U20 are a barometer

Thankfully, talk of Italy being replaced in the Six Nations has been smacked down like a low trajectory box kick. The bonkers idea couldn’t have come at a weirder time – it was hours after Italy had beaten England in the U20 Six Nations.

Many disregard the U20s as a bit of a sideshow to the senior tournaments, but they are far more than a sideshow. In under three seasons many of those players will become the main act. The U20s really is an effective diagnostic tool for predicting future success. You need only look at the current bunch of young French players to see the direct correlation – just four seasons ago they were dominating age-grade rugby.

Yes, the Italian senior team have struggled, but now isn’t the time to open the trap door. Quite the opposite.

Two greats pass

February was a sad month for rugby, in that two greats of the game passed. Va’aiga Tuigamala and Joeli Vidiri passed away within a few days of each other.

In many ways they were more than greats, they were blueprints. It may seem cold to describe someone as a blueprint, but it is meant with reverence. Both players excelled in the early days of professional rugby union and showed the game what wings could really become.

Prior to both, wings were thought of as players who were relatively short and light. We had, of course, seen John Kirwan by this stage, but nothing quite like Tuigamala had come before. He had arms like legs and legs like torsos, in an age where gym work was light at best.

Vidiri was similar, in that rapid 6ft 3in wings were a rarity in the early days of pro rugby. To see Vidiri sidestep at full speed, without losing a single mph is something only matched by that of Rupeni Caucaunibuca.

To be a rugby legend is one thing, to be a blueprint is quite another. RIP gents.

Rugby laws are there to protect the game as a whole

Rugby laws are weird. We all know that. There’s a book that’s recently been written on the subject (available on Amazon!). But as unusual as the passive-scrum outcome was in the Ireland v Italy game, it’s there for a reason.

Related: Uncontested scrum laws explained

The likelihood of a front row being unable to scrummage safely is reasonably slim when measured over a season, although with the inflation in red cards, due to player safety protocols, that possibility is increasing.

But it’s always worth remembering that the laws are there to protect the game 365 days a year, where the manipulation of front-row eligibility is a threat at all levels.

It’s also worth remembering that rugby will never be perfect.

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